When natural disasters strike—flood, wildfire, or extreme weather—the effects on a community can be profound, with threats to health, safety, infrastructure, and people displaced from their homes. The basic necessities of water, food, medicine, and shelter can very quickly be in short supply.
As you watch the news about a disaster unfold, your concern may extend to wanting to help, but the desire to help raises many questions:
- How do I contribute?
- When is the best time to contribute?
- Where is the best place to contribute?
- Can I direct my donations to specific areas?
- What organizations can I trust?
"Although leading disaster relief organizations have already mobilized thousands of relief workers to help provide temporary shelter, food, water, and other basic needs, substantial recovery efforts are likely to continue for years to come," explains Elaine Martyn, vice president at Fidelity Charitable®, a public charity that offers a donor-advised fund program.
"The need for ongoing financial support to help rebuild the many lives and communities affected will remain for months and years to come," says Martyn. "In 2018, Fidelity Charitable donors recommended more than 7,900 grants for disaster relief support totaling $28 million."
Want to help? Like many people, you'll want your donations to go to IRS-qualified organizations in a timely and efficient manner. Here are a few things to know about supporting disaster relief organizations, and a few ways you can provide assistance.
When to donate: 4 phases of disaster relief
Nonprofit organizations providing relief efforts for a natural disaster typically receive a high volume of donations in the immediate aftermath of the event. However, offering continued support through the later phases of stabilization and rebuilding is just as vital but often overlooked, and can have even greater importance.
The 4 recognized phases of disaster relief are shown in the chart below:
"So, if you think you are late in contributing to relief efforts for recent events, you clearly are not," adds Martyn. "For any natural disaster, recovery is a process that takes years. Remember, rebuilding efforts are still going on in New Orleans some 14 years after Hurricane Katrina hit."
How to donate: Think about which services you want to support
Many people forget that giving to disaster relief presents an opportunity to make your contribution part of your larger charitable giving strategy. One significant way to give is to direct your donation to a specific area (food, shelter, child welfare, animal welfare, etc.) that is personally important to you.
Below is a list of services you could support, along with a graphic that indicates the phase of the relief process during which support of this category is most important.
Also, if much of your giving is made through a religious lens, remember that faith-based charitable organizations are often at the forefront of a local response. For additional information about faith-based giving, contact your particular house of worship or its relief agency to learn more about its role in the rebuilding of communities.
Selecting charities engaged in disaster relief: 4 questions to consider
When choosing a nonprofit organization, consider the organization's priorities, partnerships, size, and scale:
How to help
After a disaster, Fidelity Charitable works with the Center for Disaster Philanthropy to highlight organizations engaged in relief services with existing operations in the impacted region, the ability to incorporate a large influx of donations, and a strong, established record of excellence in disaster relief services.
- Read more about how Fidelity Charitable responds to disaster relief
Tip: To be prepared to assist during future events, consider making disaster relief a component of your overall charitable giving plan. "You may choose, for instance, to earmark a certain percentage of your yearly giving to disaster relief," advises Martyn. "Think ahead of time which phases and services you might want to support should an event happen. If there are no disaster events in a given year, you might consider donating those dollars to Phase 4 efforts that include emergency risk reduction and prevention."
In the aftermath of a natural disaster, you may see news stories about price gouging, looting, and other illicit activities. Sadly, the nonprofit sector is not immune to fraudulent activity. It's always a good idea to practice some due diligence (and even some healthy skepticism at times) before committing your funds to a particular organization. The nonprofits that see more funding aren't just doing impressive work; they're also transparent about how they're doing it. Just because someone asks you to support a worthy effort, it doesn't mean you can't take some time to consider it—just like you would if someone was selling you an investment or a new product.
Tip: Thoroughly research the organizations you plan to support. "Remember, there can be a marked difference between a worthy cause and a worthy charity," says Martyn. Not every charity addressing a cause is equally equipped. GuideStar, Charity Navigator, the Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance, and GiveWell all provide free financial and programmatic information to donors about specific nonprofits. Charity Navigator and GiveWell also assign ratings to the nonprofits, but keep in mind that many nonprofits with a higher overhead may also provide services more effectively. You can also check the Center for High Impact Philanthropy (CHIP) for a wealth of information about how donors can maximize the impact of their giving.
Next steps to consider
Take a few minutes to learn more about the Fidelity Charitable Giving Account.
Plan how to include charitable giving as part of your investment portfolio.
Complete courses available from the Fidelity Learning Center.